The case against public intellectuals

September 15, 2021 10:07
Photo: Bloomberg

These are tough times to be a genuinely erudite scholar. Social media platforms glamourise the instant – as if the speed of consumption and consumability had anything to do with the quality of the information propagated (not that it matters); to be a scholar with limited media reach or popular following, would ostensibly be akin to – per the words of *some* folks – “begging on the streets”. After all, the scholarly job does not pay well. Punditry, exaggerated commentary, and disingenuous lies – that’s what pays. That’s what sells.

To write in a rigorous, precise manner, which may or may not alienate followers; to convey a stance that is inherently ambiguous, not for reasons to do with temerity, but to do with the fact that reality is often rather complex, has very little appeal amongst folks who are seeking clean-cut, straightforward solutions to complex issues.

Enter the self-anointed “public intellectual”. Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, or, indeed, Joe Rogan. Or, in the context of Hong Kong, self-serving croons who opine on everything – only to transform each and every piece of their writing into self-lamenting, other-lamenting tirades against the times in which we have been embroiled. We cannot control the times at which we are born – but we can indeed control the worlds, the mindsets, and the psyche that we inhabit, and, in turn, reproduce.

The very notion of “public intellectual”, in an era of hyper-information and weaponisation of the truth, is an oxymoron. To be public, requires one to eschew intellectual rigour. To be a genuine intellectual, one must shy away from the temptations of pandering to the crowds. Yet remaining far from the madding crowds does not win one any applause – nor, indeed, does it land you clicks on YouTube, likes on Facebook, and retweets on Twitter. Fast food culture has spread beyond the realm of the gastronomic.

And what’s there to lament? What’s there to dislike? After all, surely, information is birthed only for us to consume at our own pleasure; facts are but constructs that we develop to suit our own self-interests; and claims over the right and wrong are but means for powerful individuals to grand-stand, to virtue signal, to demonstrate that they’re “in the right”. Folks don’t go on Facebook in search of objectivity – they go on it to flaunt, to pedestalise, to cheat, to lie, to scam, or to berate, to hound, to holler, and to castigate those who fail to pass by the increasingly taunt standards of the kangaroo courts. Long live mendacity!

Call me a conservative (I truly ain’t) – but I’m of the view that it is high time for scholars to fight back. To fight back against the waves of disinformation and misinformation, the campaigns embedded with malign intents and erroneous half-facts; to push back against the tides of populist fanfare crowding-out both rigorous dissections of the truth, and more nuanced and comprehensive presentations of what is at stake here. I make no pretence – no one, absolutely no one, could be free and unencumbered from their own long-standing biases. Yet it’s one thing to accept the inevitability of bias; it’s another to refuse to combat it altogether.

Thus intellectuals – to the extent that they care about dignified and veracious public-facing commentary – must be prepared to call out lies, to challenge their faux counterparts, to dismantle the myths and narratives propagandised by both state and non-state actors alike. Above all, they must not, and cannot derive serious financial gains from their speech – for in doing so, in accepting the financial undertakings in association with their words, they would inevitably succumb to the traps, to the whims of the public. Perhaps energised, perhaps irritated, but rarely rational.

I’d wager the following – half of those self-anointed “public intellectuals” know very little about what they have to offer. These are dilettantish dovetailers who enjoy drawing upon all fields, who portray themselves to be a Jack of All Trades yet expert in none. They are also the ones most likely to imbue their analysis with emotive projections and subjective frames, designed to appeal to the public, and, at that, the lowest common denominator.

The other half constitutes those with genuine intellectual pursuits and passions – yet have found themselves increasingly frustrated at being side-lined and displaced by their less skilled (or more skilled, depending on one’s perspective) counterparts. They view themselves as having very little choice than to turn to the same sort of futile, self-negating rhetoric and language embraced by those raking in the dollars by the hour. These folks, I’d suggest, are victims not of their own making, but of the distortionary rules undergirding public discourse today.

Perhaps in seeking to undo the damage of faux-intellectualism, we would all benefit from dialling down our self-aggrandisement a notch. Don’t aim to be a public intellectual. Don’t identify as a public intellectual. If you’re that keen to make money, please – do away with the pretense and at least be honest about it. You’re not an intellectual.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review